Discipline guide: Attitude adjustment

When kids get saucy or snarky, our own maturity gets put to the test. Here are nine tips for coping

By Holly Bennett
Discipline guide: Attitude adjustment

The rolled eyes. The shouted insult. The muttered, dismissive whatever.

Whether the offender is four or 14, when our kids dish out the backtalk, our temperatures rise.

“It does bother me,” confesses Emma McDonough,* Toronto mom to eight-year-old Emily. “I feel like I do a lot for her and when she doesn’t respond appropriately, to be honest, it pisses me off.” And Emily, says McDonough, is not even a big offender. “She’s actually a very sweet kid.”

Lots of parents share McDonough’s feelings. In a recent Today’s Parent poll, almost 90 percent said they react negatively to backtalk, and hardly any parents said they found it only “mildly annoying” or less. (See, How much does backtalk bother you?.)

But our strong reaction may actually be part of the problem, explains Vancouver family educator Fran Kammermayer, author of It’s Not a Plot to Drive You Crazy. “Rude, disrespectful behaviour really pushes our buttons. Our need to take charge kicks in: ‘I’m the parent — don’t you dare talk to me that way.’ That engages the child, and the power struggle is on!”

And even worse, sometimes we get sidetracked by the backtalk or snarky tone, away from our original — and more important — focus, says psychologist Anthony Wolf, author of five parenting books, including the perfectly named teen guide Get Out of My Life, But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?


Let’s say you ask 11-year-old Colin to take out the garbage. After an initial protest, he reluctantly gets up to do it. “So stupid!” he mutters under his breath, making sure you hear, as he stomps out. “If you take the bait and demand, ‘What did you say!?’, you’re in for a pointless fight and the garbage may actually be forgotten,” points out Wolf. Which tells Colin that being obnoxious is a great way to get out of chores.

So what’s an exasperated parent to do? Read on.

1. Keep your perspective

“If he talks rudely to me, I figure he’ll do it with others too,” says Dee Boone-Layzell, mom to eight-year-old Travis. Parents also worry that mouthy kids will carry the habit with them into adulthood.

Neither scenario is likely, our experts agree. “Even well-adjusted children exhibit their worst behaviour with you, at home,” says Kammermayer. “It does not mean they are rude to everyone else or that they will be rude adults.”


2. Don’t take it personally

Yes, sometimes children say hurtful things. But it’s a mistake to take it to heart as though it were another adult saying these things. “The child is on a journey and trying to have some control,” says Kammermayer. “Some phases of the journey will be unpleasant. If we take everything as a personal affront, we may sabotage the relationship.”

Also, notes Wolf, telling children that they are hurting us with their words gives them too much power. It’s actually stronger, he says, to tackle this from a more objective place, saying something like “That is unpleasant and disrespectful.”

When McDonough’s daughter accused her mother of being “sooo embarrassing!” when they were out together in public, McDonough turned it into a little lesson in tolerance, replying: “You must let Mommy be Mommy. I don’t try to make you into a different person.”

*Names changed by request.


3. Role-model

At certain stages of their childhood, some kids will be saucy or downright rude even if we are unfailingly respectful — and that makes us feel doubly wronged. (“I never speak like that to her. Why would she treat me that way?”) “I think attitude is learned by osmosis,” muses Jen Fischer,* mom to 10-year-old Ben. “A lot of it comes from TV.”

But in the long term, our own behaviour does give our children the pattern for how we want them to end up. “Kids learn respect from parents who are respectful of others, including their children and themselves,” stresses Kammermayer.

4. Disengage

Kammermayer and Wolf agree that this is a key parental strategy. Kids sometimes act provocatively in order to provoke us. We can’t stuff those words back into their mouths, but we can model self-respect and refuse to subject ourselves to abusive or denigrating language. “Disengage,” urges Wolf. “Otherwise you are feeding the backtalk with your attention.”


How do you disengage? Often it means physically leaving the scene. But it is not the same as ignoring, cautions Kammermayer. Kids do need to know when their behaviour is inappropriate. With a young child, she explains, you might say something like “I really don’t like to be talked to that way. I’m going to the kitchen. When you want to talk to me nicely, you can come and join me.”

“This is not a retreat,” insists Kammermayer. It’s more effective when you walk away, rather than trying to send the child to a time out or his room. It’s a really clear message: I love to spend time with you, but not when you behave like this.

Consider the difference, says Wolf, between giving the message “That is not acceptable, and you have to stop” and the message “That is not acceptable, and I’m not going to allow myself to be subjected to it.” The first throws down the gauntlet for a power struggle. The second puts you in control.

Boone-Layzell has learned this is the best strategy when her eight-year-old son becomes bossy and rude. “I walk away,” she says. “He’s starting to catch on that I won’t listen until he changes his attitude.”

*Names changed by request.


5. Reward respectful communication (including protests and anger)

Here’s the rub. Kids do need to learn to stand up for themselves, to express anger or other difficult emotions, and to argue a point in an appropriate, assertive but respectful way. It’s not easy — many adults still struggle with these skills. So don’t use disengagement as a way to shut down legitimate discussions about limits, rules, family dynamics or feelings. Let your kids know that when they make a decent effort to be civil, you will make the effort to listen to their point of view.

“Leave the door open for them to try again,” suggests Wolf. “Say, ‘I’ll be happy to discuss this with you, but not if you’re using that tone of voice.’ Maybe they’ll be able to manage it. If they can’t, the discussion is over. But give them the same choice next time.”

6. Discuss it later

There’s a time for a brief discussion about family standards, being gentle with people’s feelings, and more constructive ways to express disagreement — and that time is later, suggests Wolf. “Pick a neutral time, when you have both calmed down.” When your child has clearly crossed the line, says Kammermayer, let him know you intend to call him on it: “We’ll be discussing that later tonight.”


7. Use humour

“If I can keep a sense of humour, Emily often responds,” says McDonough. “Not mean teasing, but a joke can turn things right around.” Say your daughter demands a drive to Kendra’s house, right now. You might be tempted to snap, “I’m not your slave!” — and fair enough. But you could also bend low and intone, “Yes, O Mighty One, I live to serve!” to help her see how she’s coming across. Followed by an invitation: “Perhaps you’d like to rephrase that request.”

8. Don’t be a doormat

The middle ground between overreacting and not setting limits can be hard for some parents to find. Occasionally, observes Wolf, he sees kids who verbally bully their parents. “When this happens, my sense is that the parent needs to become better at making a firm, confident point — at conveying stern anger, as opposed to anger tinged with desperation,” says Wolf. Kammermayer echoes his point: “Don’t be wishy-washy or pleading. Disengaging is not the same as letting kids say whatever they want to us.”

Wolf demonstrates the confident, blunt tone of voice he’d use to respond to a teenager throwing an obscenity his way: “You don’t talk to me that way.”


“Remember that we are on a journey too, and sometimes we need to work on ourselves,” says Kammermayer. “When our own self-respect is solid, we won’t be so likely to overreact to minor transgressions or to put up with abuse.”

9. Have faith

At times, all our hard work, modelling, limit setting and explaining truly seem to be falling on deaf ears. But growing up takes time. Or think of it this way: How much worse would it be if you didn’t do all these things? “We do have an effect,” Wolf assures. “It’s not perfect, but it does influence them.”

Jen Fischer doesn’t enjoy the “scornful adults-are-idiots stuff” her son is trying on lately. Her responses have run the gamut from humour to stopping the conversation to (admittedly ineffective) threats to cut TV time. But she thinks the most important thing she does is stay in touch. “A few times a week, at bedtime, I just ask him what’s up and we talk about things. He knows I care about what he thinks and he knows I’m there for him,” she says, concluding, “A strong relationship is the best long-term hedge against mockery and disrespect.”

Backtalk through the ages


Preschoolers (3–5) Preschoolers don’t understand the “emotional baggage” of backtalk, explains family educator Fran Kammermayer. “They are just asserting themselves and trying out expressions they’ve heard,” agrees psychologist Anthony Wolf. Your four-year-old doesn’t understand why “silly” is OK and “stupid” is not, or mean it when he says, “Bad mommy!” So don’t get into how he really feels about your parenting; just address it from the general rule of talking to people politely. Remember also that preschoolers are still learning to express their feelings in words, rather than screams and kicks. Even if their words are not so pleasant, “acknowledge their progress,” suggests Kammermayer.

School-agers (6–8) This is a fairly quiet stage from a developmental point of view, but temperament and individual personality will have a large effect on how much push-back you get from your school-ager. Late in this stage, girls especially may try on what Wolf calls “a pseudo-adolescent style” and an attitude to go with it.

“This is a key age to model how you deal with anger and frustration,” says Kammermayer. And because the mouthiness is more deliberate at this age, you can hold your child accountable for her actions: “That is inappropriate, and I know you can do better than that.”

Preteens and young teens (9–14) Let the games begin. Even kids who have always been sweet will likely give it to you now. Why? “It’s the big push for independence, freedom and control,” says Kammermayer. “They still want to engage with us, but they are driven to chafe against our directives and limits.” Add in bubbling hormones, an immature brain and a popular culture awash in rude humour, and you have a recipe for conflict.

But stay the course. “The hardest thing in the world is to walk away from a teenager,” Kammermayer admits. Teens will go to great lengths to prolong an argument, but what we want to demonstrate is that being obnoxious gets them nothing — not even a satisfying fight!


On the other hand, teens have a lot of intense feelings, and if you are only willing to listen when their manners are perfect and their language squeaky clean, you’ll miss some important parenting moments and opportunities.

Look at it this way: If your best friend arrived at your house in tears and sobbed, “That bitch! I hate her!” would you reproach her for swearing and refuse to listen? Or would you put your arm around her and say, “Tell me about it”?

How much does backtalk bother you?

Here’s what more than 600 Today’s Parent readers told us:

3% I hardly notice it 9% I find it mildly annoying 39% I really dislike it 23% It upsets me and I have trouble dealing with it 26% I hate it — my kids better speak to me respectfully, or else

This article was originally published on May 11, 2009

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